Sometime as I was reading the Song of Ice and Fire books a few years ago, just when Game of Thrones was getting popular and more and more fans were starting to fight over who they thought would be the best person to end up on the Iron Throne, I started wondering, “Wait a minute. We live in a supposedly democratic, meritocratic society these days that (at least nominally) no longer believes in hereditary rule. Why are we so invested in seeing an autocratic, hereditary tyrant installed on a throne, to lord it over our favorite fictional continent? Shouldn’t we be rooting for the Seven Kingdoms to become a democracy instead?” (I’m on Team Dany, by the way!)
And have you ever thought about how weird it is that, in Sailor Moon, we’re supposed to be happy that Usagi and Mamoru end up as Neo-Queen Serenity and King Endymion, absolute rulers of the entire freaking Earth for over a thousand years? The narrative presents this as a positive thing because they’re such just and peaceful rulers, and those who question Neo-Queen Serenity’s rule are presented as the villains.
This should be absolutely terrifying. Just sayin’.
As I began thinking about this further, I realized that a lot of our modern media is still in the habit of over-valuing noble blood. It makes sense that old fairy tales feature lots of royalty, secret royalty, and marrying into royalty, because back then, that was the best possible situation people could imagine for themselves. But why does this obsession still exist today when kings and queens with real power (for the most part) are not prominent anymore? You also may be wondering, what’s the harm of featuring noble-born characters? I would argue that they reinforce the false idea of privileged birth translating to inherent “special-ness,” as well as ignore the stories of those born into less privilege.
Let’s examine this in several examples below the jump!
I have no idea what it is about The Lord of the Rings books, but whatever it is, I cannot bring myself for to finish reading them. I have tried to get through The Fellowship of the Ring numerous times now, and each time I have given up after reaching Tom Bombadil. This probably wouldn’t be a problem for me if just skipped past him—which I guess I’ll try to do after writing this post—but dear Tom has been a giant roadblock in my reading experience since I first attempted these books ten years ago.
This is also endlessly frustrating, because I actually like just about everything else in the story. As such, since I can’t read the books, and I can only marathon the movies so many times before they get old, I turned to good old fashioned fanfiction to get my LotR fill.
I’ve always had strong feelings about the use of prophecy in storytelling. Prophecies can either flesh out a story and support its plot, or frustrate the reader by being too obvious or too trite.
So what do I look for in a good prophecy? Well, when prophecy is used effectively, it doesn’t take away from the storytelling. It suggests a possible series of events to the characters, but it doesn’t give a ton away; essentially, it’s kind of vague. Prophecies can employ some double meanings, but they shouldn’t be entirely pedantic. What I mean by this is, they should have some meat to them—they shouldn’t be constantly fulfilled by a technicality. For example, if the prophecy says the character will experience death, there should be some mortal consequences, rather than like, having them orgasm and calling it a “little death” or something stupid like that. (I made up that example, but lordy if you see someone doing that in a story please tell me first.) It should also engage the reader in trying to understand what it foreshadows before the characters experience to what it’s predicting.
I mean, I’m not one for princess fantasies, usually, but even I would love to be a space princess.
Lately, I’ve grown so tired of watching male “chosen ones” and “jerks with the heart of gold” save the day and get the girl. Representation matters, and girls want to be chosen ones too, and not just princesses in distress. Women are allowed to hate the world and be brilliant while reluctantly saving the day. And we should be able to see ourselves, our stories, and our fantasies reflected on screen too. I’m always on the lookout for female characters subverting generally male character tropes, and today I would like to tell you about some of them and why they matter.
When you grow up reading a lot of genre fiction, especially young adult and high fantasy, a major turning point in your emotional growth is realizing that “the dark lord”, as you have come to know this all-too-common character archetype, doesn’t really exist. In reality, evil as an ideal is never made manifest in a single adversary whose sole objective is to destroy and corrupt the goodness in the world. Sure, there are people who are “bad” from your own perspective, and bad qualities like selfishness, prejudice, and lack of empathy are generally culturally agreed upon, but even the worst people are generally heroes in their own minds, people who have not yet been shown the error of their ways. No one sets out to be Sauron or the White Witch or Voldemort, and no matter how much power and influence bad people achieve, I know of no instance where anyone has claimed that their ultimate goal was the advancement of the cause of evil.
Most frameworks of morality grasp this concept pretty well: that good and evil are not absolutes, and that humans inherently have the capacity for both positive and negative behaviors. The major exception seems to be in certain camps of modern Christianity, which assigns a motive and influence to Satan that is very much comparable to the fictional and largely metaphorical presence of Sauron and other prototypical “dark lords”. While in Tolkien’s case, Sauron was a metaphor for industrialization, and in the case of children’s books, morality is artificially externalized and simplified for the sake of young readers, the Christian reading of Satan is—as far as many active faith communities are concerned—neither metaphorical nor exaggerated. Satan is literally a dark wizard.
There’s a slow but exciting change occurring in popular media, these days: lots of creators are finally beginning to show female friendships in their works. That’s not to say that there have never been friendships between ladies in the public eye before the last few years—Wicked comes to mind, among other things—but the message seems to finally have gotten out to the world at large. We want more than one lady in things, and we want those ladies to understand each other, not for them to antagonize each other.
One of the most important functions of fiction is that it can be used to provide greater insight on reality. By reframing a real social problem in an entirely new and unfamiliar context, that problem can be portrayed more objectively, divorced from the society that may normalize or excuse prejudices or social division. As writers have addressed before, allegory is a very common and a very positive element of fantasy, but even the noblest and most direct of allegories are not the same as visible and relatable minority representation in fantasy. Social research indicates that for minority groups, visibility in media is critical in creating a sense of importance and self-worth, something that metaphorical representation, however well-constructed, does not provide. Fortunately, there is no reason that a story cannot contain both an extended social metaphor and some trans wizards or dark-skinned fauns. Continue reading →
Welp, the last Hobbit movie has finally come out. Before we go any further, let’s pour one out for the franchise—this is the last time (barring a Peter Jackson Silmarillion adaptation—fingers crossed) that we’ll be able to see a new Lord of the Rings movie in theaters. I didn’t have high hopes for the final installation in the series, since the first two were a little bit too long for my tastes. So I don’t know if it was a result of my low expectations or what, but I was surprised to find I actually enjoyed Battle of the Five Armies.
Historically speaking, humans have had a real knack for identifying superficial differences in people and separating them into categories based on those differences. This system is a very effective means of discrimination, because once it is clear that two groups are different, it becomes easier to make arguments (ridiculous though they may be) about which group is superior. Differences in religious belief have caused some of the more dramatic incidents of division and discrimination throughout the course of civilization—I’m looking at you, Crusades—but separating religions themselves into categories can have more subtle and long-term effects on culture.
Gettin’ real homogenous up in here.
With each new generation of believers, there is a slow evolution of “old” and “new” beliefs. Once-thriving religions, especially Pagan religions, are now either shunned into the realm of mythology or considered to be hokey counter-culture territory. This is a distinction we see mimicked in fantasy worlds. Even in alternate universes or histories where magic is plainly observable and actual deities occasionally turn up in unquestionable physical form, there is often a distinction between the “old” and “new” religion, and with that distinction comes a division of people: those who follow the old gods, and those who follow the new. This distinction typically comes with some indication of which religion is supposedly superior: in some narratives the old gods are benevolent and powerful, and the new gods are forcing them out of their rightful dominion, and in others the old gods are wicked and archaic, and the new religion eclipsing them changes the world for the better. Continue reading →